TALLAHASSEE - At the start of the Class 1A cross country championship race, rescheduled from Friday to Sunday due to Hurricane Eta, defending champion Austin Montini, of Oak Hall, with a 15:20 split …
TALLAHASSEE - At the start of the Class 1A cross country championship race, rescheduled from Friday to Sunday due to Hurricane Eta, defending champion Austin Montini, of Oak Hall, with a 15:20 split in Atlanta earlier in the season, blasted to the front in an attempt to get away, but St. Johns Country Day School junior Matthew Stratton, second to Montini last year, stayed right to Montini’s left shoulder with Tallahassee Maclay’s Jackson Yarbrough, second to Stratton in last week’s region 1-1A race.
“We all started out really, really fast and wound up we played his game,” said Stratton, who was second in last year’s Class 1A championship last year. “I really think if I had run my own race knowing he ran a 15:20 during the season and I had a 15:25, that I might have been able to get up to him at the end of the race. It didn’t work that way, though.”
Stratton, who defeated Tallahassee Maclay’s Jackson Yarbrough at the Region 1-1A meet last week in 15:55, joined Yarbrough and Montini as the the third runner in the front escape pack. Stratton came to Tallahassee with wins in the district and region race in his back pocket and a handful of sub-16 minute races through the season.
“At the region race, Yarbrough kind of let me go after I broke at the two mile mark,” said Stratton. “I think he was comfortable in second place and getting to state and went ahead an pushed to get under 16 minutes.”
With the field cut in half by FHSAA recent standards due to the COVID, runners were able to space out and not get caught in crowded space on turns.
Seffner Christian, Oak Hall and Tallahasse Maclay were the three teams considered top threats to the team title.
Before the mile mark, Montini and Stratton were amongst a group of five runners all positioning up front for the hills and late surges.
At one mile, five runners, including Stratton, Yarbrough and Montini, went through at 4:47 as the lead pack started to inch away from the chase groups. Seffner Christian and the rest of the Oak Hall team were in the second pack as runners were approaching the first hill of the race. Oak Hall had position at the one mile to take the team top spot.
After the mile split, Montini started to surge a bit with Stratton just behind him.
After the first hill, five runners still clung together but in single file position as the first signs of wear and tear started to creep into the race.
Montini, Yarbrough and Stratton got a slim five yard gap as runners turned back onto the start stretch of the course to repeat the loop around the Appalachee Park trek, the home race course for the Maclay High team.
With Yarbrough and Montini sandwiching Stratton on the long straightaway back toward the finish line on lap two, the front pack maintained a torrid pace, but still could not break the chase pack.
After passing the finish line on to lap two, Montini and Yarbrough got some space in front of Stratton.
Back into the backside of the course, Montini surged slightly away from Yarbrough in an apparent attempt to shake his two chasers including Stratton and Seffner Christian’s Riley Novack who had clamped on to the back of the chasers.
Montini punched in near the two mile mark with a much larger gap on Yarbrough and Stratton trying to hang within striking distance for the final mile.
Novack joined the top five runners with the second three struggling to keep Montini in sight. Ironically, Cade Montini, Austin’s sophomore runners, was fading off the second pack at the two mile mark.
Up the final hill, Montini and Yarbrough powered up five yards apart before the finish line, with Stratton in a three man chase group.
Stratton, after the final hill, put a chase in on Yarbrough as the finish line loomed.
“Montini made it a race and Jackson was going to stay with him,” said Stratton. “I wished I would have run my race because I would have been able to be up their at the end.”
Yarbrough surged hard in the final 800 meters to push Montini who was struggling.
At the finish, Montini just outleaned Yarbrough at the finish for his second title in two years with Stratton striding in for third place. Montini finished in 15:48.8 with Yarbrough at 15:49.1 and Stratton at 15:59.8.
“It was a disappointing run after I saw my time at the finish knowing I had a lot of finishes much faster,” said Stratton. “Now, we just retweak the training through soccer and gear up for track.”
The split between Montini and Yarbrough was the closest finish in FHSAA history. Dalin Mitchell of Seffner Christian snuck in ahead of Novack for fourth with both just over 16 minutes.
In the team points, Seffner Christian powered to the front with 61 points with Oak Hll at 83 and Maclay at 126. St. Johns finished 11th with 262 points.
Finishing for St. Johns were Jacob Kailes in 17:28.4 for 45th, freshman Richard Nichols in 18:20.6 for 71st, Stanley Cowhere in 19:38.8 for 92nd, James Wilson in 20:12.9 for 102nd, Aidan Herrera in 20:27.4 for 106th and Cade Zehner in 21:20.3 for 111th.